Science Fiction, Fantasy and Genre

One thing that I really like about the explosion in the breadth and depth of fantasy literature is the torrent of interesting ideas. Take, for example, the explanation problem in modern fantasy – a story set in the current “real” world must explain why most people have no knowledge of or experience with magic.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you already know the most common solution: it’s hidden. In the Harry Potter stories, the Ministry of Magic goes to great lengths to keep magic a secret. In the Harry Dresden stories, while no explicit effort goes towards keeping magic secret, most people consciously and/or subconsciously don’t want to know about the supernatural.

Another solution that authors have used is The Big Reveal. Magic and the supernatural have always been around, and hidden, but now they’re not. In the Sookie Stackhouse novels, vampires held press conferences throughout the world, announcing their existence. This worked out better in some countries than in others. The Jane Yellowrock novels also use a Big Reveal. One of the interesting parts of stories with a Big Reveal is the evolution of the attitudes towards vampires, shapeshifters, and other supernatural entities by the public at large, individual characters, and the government.

I would also like to mention a special case of The Big Reveal found in the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews. In this series, magic has been dormant for hundreds of years, allowing the development of modern technology. Only magic doesn’t stay gone, and when it finally comes back, things get wild. In the stories, magic and tech are incompatible and mankind has learned to deal with whichever is in force at any given time – for example, houses have both electronic and magical lighting systems.

And then there are the authors who want to write a modern or “urban” fantasy story and don’t want either hidden magic or a reveal.

The most common form is a parallel timeline – a universe similar to our own, but where magic and magical creatures have always been public knowledge. The level of parallelism can vary significantly. The universe of Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, contains much of the same history, and many of the same pop-culture elements. The first volume in the story begins shortly after vampires are granted rights as citizens with legal protections – though not quite the same protections as normal humans, since normal humans can’t mesmerize prison guards.

A less common form of “urban” fantasy is set in a completely different universe, with different geography, countries, societies, history, languages and cultures. The recognizable trappings of modern society such as cars, electric lights, printed books, modern houses/apartments/condos, and cities with concrete and asphalt are present, but none of the brands, artists, or names are recognizable. I’ve only run into a couple examples of this type, the best being a newish series The Others by one of my favorite fantasy authors – Anne Bishop.

Now somewhere out in the audience, there’s someone thinking “four distinct sub-genres.” My only comment about that is: hogwash.

I deliberately withheld one important detail about the Kate Daniels series. It’s set in the future. And they have technology that’s in advance of our own. Confusing, right? Is it even really fantasy? Or is it some kind of funky science fiction sub-genre? Honestly, I think it’s the wrong question.

The idea behind genres and sub-genres is to divide everything up into nice, neat categories. Then we can say that a given book is LGBT, alternate history, steampunk, for example. And dividing things up into these nice, neat categories is supposed to help us find the books that interest us, and avoid the ones that don’t.

Except that science fiction and fantasy writers don’t write stories so that they can fall into nice, neat categories. They write stories with fresh, new ideas. They write stories that push past the boundaries of what we’ve imagined so far, into realms that we had not yet previously imagined. That’s when writers are at their best – coloring outside the lines.

So, if we want to see great SF&F writing, do we really want to keep drawing new lines for authors to color inside of? I sure as heck don’t think so.

To be honest, I’m not even entirely sure that we need to separate science fiction and fantasy in the first place. Instead, I would just call it all speculative fiction, which has the advantage of having a recognizable acronym. Then we can talk about distinct story elements – the things that we used to call sub-genres. The difference being, that a work can have whatever DSEs are appropriate. The Kate Daniels series has a future setting, advanced technology, magic, vampires, and also shapeshifters. Not exactly a combination that fits well into a traditional sub-genre system.

Oh, and just to shake things up, how about a story with current setting, alien invasion, and vampires. Seriously. Out of the Dark by David Weber. Yeah, that Weber. Go look it up if you don’t believe me.

And quit trying to shoe-horn things into nice, neat categories. Life doesn’t work that way. Just ask the platypus.

SciFi.StackExchange in Practical Use – A newcomer’s journey to Doctor Who.

doctor whoJust a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t know anything about Doctor Who. But I was intrigued by this series. So when I had an occasion to get the Series 6 on Blu-Ray, I jumped on it.

But where to start? Would I have to watch 5 full seasons before enjoying Series 6 like it’s suggested here ?

The task seemed too big for me. But Scifi.Stackexchange saves the day again! Someone asked “Which episodes of the new doctor who series are required viewing before starting series six?”.  After reading the only answer of this question, I decided to go with Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead from series 4, and then watch the complete series 5.

Those 2 episodes from series 4 are a wonderful introduction to this universe. It get just enough mystery to urge you to continue. I feel the show suffers from a little slow down in the first episodes of Series 5, and the transition to the new Doctor is a bit rough and confusing. But once I got through this and watched 2 or 3 episodes, I was completely hooked. The way characters are introduced makes me feel really concerned about what happens to them. Amy, the last Centurion, and River are strong, engaging characters I care about. At the end of each episode I just cannot leave them there without watching another.

Before I noticed it, I had watched all the episodes up to the season 6 finale. And now I think I will go back to Series 1 to see what I have missed.

In retrospect, my main concern as a newcomer to Doctor Who was about being lost in the middle of a universe I cannot understand because there are too many unexplained things going on. I could assure you I did not feel like that. If you want to introduce yourself to Doctor Who, and don’t want to start to the beginning, I suggest you do as I did, there will be time to go back if you enjoy the show.

SciFi.StackExchange in Practical Use – In what order should the Star Wars movies be watched?

This question was posted on Feb 1st, 2011 inquiring about what the is the best order to watch all six of the the [tag]Star-Wars[/tag] saga movies.

After receiving my own copy of the newly released Blu-ray version of the epic tale, I brought it upon myself to actually do what the most popular, and accepted answer to this question was as a test to see if the answer to the question has merit, or just looked good on paper.

The sugested reading order given by user Mike Scott with graphic by neilfein

56 of the users of SciFi.SE voted the answer “Watch the movie in this order: Episode IV -> Episode V -> Episode I -> Episode II -> Episode III -> and finally Episode VI.” I even upvoted this question. But alas, I haven’t actually watched this series in order (any relative order, in fact) ever. The last time I watched a Star Wars movie was when Episode III came to theatres in 2005. And before that I watched Episode II and I. I never actually watched all 3 of the original trilogy in order either. I only ever watched it when it was on the TV in passing. I did see the re-release in theatres in 1997 but before that, I don’t think I ever actually saw the whole trilogy.

I always considered myself a fan of the series, but when I look back on what I have actually exposed myself to, my main viewing of Star Wars has been mostly the New Trilogy.

This got me thinking about more than just how I voted on that one question, but how I vote on a lot of questions. I fully support ever answer I upvote, but in all honesty, most of the answers that I have given the “big up arrow” to were ones I just believed were right.

But I wanted to change that. I wanted to actually use the information given to me on this wonderful site and put it to practical use.

So, lets get started…

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Lessons Learned: Lord of the Rings

[In this segment, we discuss a popular tag on the site, and what are some of the most interesting observations made from the topic.]

Lord of the Rings is perhaps one of the most complete fantasy worlds ever created. There are so many unanswered questions, it’s the perfect topic for a Stack Exchange site. I’ve seen questions which have really made me think. Some of the great insights I’ve gained by studying the topic here include:

Who or What was Tom Bombadill? This is actually the single most upvoted question so far on the site. The most popular answer leads through a discussion first on what he isn’t. He isn’t a human, dwarf, elf, magician, doesn’t seem affected by the One Ring, and doesn’t seem to care for much around him, except for his surrounds. The most likely theory: he is one of the Ainur, descendent of Ilúvatar , the creator, or somehow related to them. But, as the second most popular answer quotes from Tolkien himself: “And even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).”

What special powers did the Dwarf rings give their users? So, we know there were a total of 20 rings of power, 9 given to humans, 7 to dwarves, 3 to elves, and 1 to Sauron. Of these, all play a significant role in the series, except for the Dwarf Rings. What did they do? It seems likely from various answers that the 16 rings made by Sauron, except for the One Ring, were all very similar in power. The main difference seems to be how they affect a person, given their biology. The main use of the Dwarf Rings was twofold. The advantage by having them was great wealth. The disadvantage was extreme greed. The dwarves who used them were not subject to Sauron’s control, nor did they turn invisible.

Why weren’t the Three Rings for the Elven-kings destroyed as well? We all know the One Ring was destroyed. The human and dwarf rings ceased to function after the destruction of the One Ring. But, the 3 elf rings, free from the corruption of Sauron, still functioned, or is so believed. They were all removed from Middle-earth at the end of the book. Why weren’t they destroyed? From reading this topic, a clear answer is not provided, but it seems likely that the 3 rings lost at least some, if not all, of their powers, that they had some connection to the One Ring, despite the Elves’ best attempts. The rings disappeared from Middle-earth, without us knowing if they still worked. By leaving Middle-earth, it no longer mattered if they were destroyed, and they were in good hands. It seems like it just didn’t matter.

Finally, I’d like to end with an answer that was so amazing, that I can’t even begin to give it any justice, so I’m just going to give the title of the question and a link. I hope you enjoy Lord Of The Rings – what is the important background information contained in the poems?